Authors: Divya Sood
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
For more information contact:
Riverdale Avenue Books
5676 Riverdale Avenue
Riverdale, NY 10471.
Cover by Scott Carpenter
Digital ISBN 978-1-62601-261-5
For Jayshreema Khoosal
If I were a true New Yorker, I might tell you the entire story all at once. But I am a Kolkata-ite transplant. And in Kolkata, cab drivers sing to blaring radios most of the ride before telling you anything about themselves, and then divulge information only if asked. And when they do volunteer information, it is always, almost always in a slow drawl that lays out their long working hours, their long distances and their yearnings to go home to rest in faraway villages. If they have children and speak about them, it is a slow revelation of which child is destined, which is ill-fated and which is entirely doomed. Entire afternoons in Kolkata are lazy just like the cab driver's talk, filled with siestas and silence and sunlight. Even our cows are shy and plod slowly across the road, heads down and soundless. It is a city where, amid rushes and mad dashes, patience and pacing are still dual virtues. So I will start only by saying my name is Jasbir Banerjee and one day during a beneficent summer, I tried to make sense of my life.
My life. Sense. Those two concepts never merged in my head. Whenever I tried to fuse my life and sense together, it sounded to me like one of those commercials for astrologers running on Z-TV or Sony or any other Indian channel that you could tune to in Manhattan who promised you riches and health and always, always, the love of your life. But no one ever promised to make sense of your life. And that's one thing I wantedâto make sense of it all.
That Friday as I sat on the rim of the fountain at Central Park, I had two women on my mind: Tracy Chapman and Anjali Chopra. As Tracy's “She's Got Her Ticket” resounded loud and clear through my headphones, in my head it sounded like the karaoke version I had unwillingly rendered the night before. Anjali's voice echoed from that morning: “I'm making biryani today. Make sure you come home early this evening.”
“If I had my ticket, what would I do with it anyway?” I asked myself.
Tracy softly answered, “
I shook my head as if to say, “
No, Tracy, thank you. I do love her, you know.
And I did love her. Just yesterday, hadn't she stroked the thick of her palm across my forehead and kissed my lips just because I was quiet and she wanted the sadness to go away? Hadn't I slept in her lap, TV blaring, just because I loved her? These things had happened, too, and I could not forget them because forgetting all the small things would leave no big things. The big things were what my heart was used to chasing. With Anjali, the small things added up, became big and I had to remember that. Because I loved her, I could not fly away even if commanded by Tracy Chapman's sultry yet authoritative voice.
So from sparkling dusk to darkened evening, I concentrated all my energy on a Spiderman kite as it slid through the sky. I followed the silver string to the blue plastic spool where a boy of eight or nine grew more and more ecstatic as the kite climbed upwards, the string marking a trajectory of escape.
Fly-fly- fly-fly- fly-fly- fly-fly-----fly-away
“No Tracy, thank you. Although if I could fly away from MCAT's and writer's block, I would fly away and write a novel. But from Anjali?”
The thought of life without Anjali left an emptiness, a vacuum deep inside my heart and as I felt the tears swell at just the thought of life without Anjali, Tracy spoke.
“What else would you do?” Tracy seemed to ask.
I would find and pursue love. Sometimes I wonder whether that means Anjali or not. But either way, I would pursue love, chase it, swallow it, and drink it all the way down, Anjali Chopra or not. Then I would return home to Kolkata and tell my parents everything there was to tell. “I'm a writer not a doctor. I want to heal through my words. not my hands.” And then, then I would apply to an MFA program and write the nights away. I would write about how much I loved Anjali and how I couldn't stand being with her. How I feel displaced no matter where I was. How I wish I could sing because it seemed to carry so much of the pain away, like it does for you, Tracy. I would do all these things. But I can't fly away. I can't.
That day under a blue grey sky, Tracy didn't ask me why I couldn't fly away and I was grateful. I could never answer that question for myself, let alone for Tracy Chapman. All I knew was that my life was full of all the wrong things but I didn't know how to find the right things or even if there were “right” things to find. It seemed that in any facet of my life, nothing felt genuine. Behind Anjali's biryani, there was a woman who hid the hurt of our relationship behind gourmet meals and elaborate parties. If I were to talk of med school, I would say I felt like an imposter in my MCAT classes. Most of the time my mind wandered and when it did come back to the MCATs at hand, I hadn't paid enough attention to understand most of anything that was going on. The last thing I wanted to do was the one thing my parents had made me promise that I would do and that was to become a doctor and save the world. I didn't want to save the world. I wanted to write a novel.
Clean blue ink on cream white pages. That's all I ever saw. Not that I ever wrote anymore. About the time Anjali and I started our tryst, a case of writer's block set in on my mind and heart, took hold and never left. I tried to coax it away, attended Gotham Writers' Workshop and tried some soul-searching. Not being able to write any longer was, after all, like a searing pain. But nothing helped. So another thought that crept into my mind and started to make me uncomfortable that day in Central Park was this: how could I ever be a writer if I didn't write a single word?
I found my Spiderman kite again and watched it aimlessly float by. I closed my eyes and thought of the pujas I had seen as a child where hundreds of kites bit the sky at once, thread like silk spinning fast away from wooden spools. Half burned incense in nearby temples had delighted us with the fragrance of Queen of the Night. And when we had stopped for ice cream, it was already half-melted yet fully delicious, the vanilla tantalizingly sweet. It was those nights when perfume came alive in the sticky Kolkata heat and at the heart of the evening I closed my eyes always to find the scent of a beautiful woman. Those evenings when we sang songs without end, I felt safe yet uneasy, full of yearnings I could not then understand.
Anjali insisted that one year we should go to Kolkata for the pujas. I told her that if ever I had the courage for it, I would return to see my parents and breathe in the city of my childhood. Not today. Not tomorrow. Some day. After all, courage takes time to build, especially if you've left behind nothing but lies and distortion. She said love forgives all those things. Anjali. Anjali, who nursed me with cold compresses after fevers only to find me better, running out of the apartment to what she knew and her heart denied as the company, the arms, and the kisses of another woman. But you forgave that too, didn't you, Anjali? For all that you have forgiven me, I am ashamed by the fact that there is no forgiveness you ask of me. Because you never flew away, never tried, never will. For you loved me, love me, will love me with every ounce of everything that you have inside you. And I try not to know that but I do. Can I make myself love you like you love me, Anjali? Can you forgive me if I can't? Can that be your ultimate forgiveness?
I opened my eyes and turned to watch a silver curtain of water spilling from an angel's feet. Beyond the fountain, tree branches swayed as they whispered their own secrets. I watched as a couple walked hand in hand down the stairs. She tilted her head back as she laughed and I wondered for an instant what it was he said. A man at the corner of the stairway was playing “Pachelbel's Canon” on an alto sax. It was the perfect backdrop to their journey. I wondered if they were happy or if they were living lies and sleeping past truth, hoping to catch moments of happiness like moonlight in the palms of their hands. With couples, I always wondered.
Anjali and I were an odd couple at best. But there was something empty about us and I had started to wonder lately if perhaps we just clung to each other without meaning. We had tried all the possibilities: exclusive relationship, open relationship, friends with no relationship, friends with benefits, acquaintances, roommates, lovers and the list went on. But none of these distinctions worked for us. What we tried now was a belief that we had the perfect relationship. It worked. We circumvented the issue of other people in our lives by not discussing it. Although we both knew that there were other people, and when one of us came home past dawn the other looked away pretending that everything was still in place even though it never quite was. For all the love in the world, we always found something to argue about. We always found a way to be miserable. I started to wonder if I could help the situation somehow.
Tracy had moved onto “Fast Car” and as her songs shuffled for me, I realized it was getting late. I would think another time perhaps. Not that all my pondering led to anything but it was a habit for me to think, live and then think some more.
I got up to leave so as to be on time for Anjali's biryani but before I took a step, there came to me a fragrance so faint I thought it was a hallucination of my senses. I got up from the fountain but, instead of walking away, I walked around. I took only a few steps and stopped when I saw a dozen sticks of incense, lit and glowing orange against the powdery dusk, planted into a small pot as if they were flowers. As I walked closer, I saw her squatting on the ground, her thumb ring glittering, dancing as her fingers worked to undo the zippers on an old backpack.
Suddenly, she looked up and said, “What's up?”
“Not quite the response I expected, princess.”
I took my ear pods out of my ears.
“Umâ¦I'm just curious, actually,” I said.
“Know how to read you,” she said, “Know how to read you.”
“I'm not hard to read.”
She raised her eyebrows and smiled.
“Take a look,” she said as she waved her hand over her photographs as if blessing them with good intention, a benediction of sort.
I squatted on the ground. Her photos may not have been professionally angled or shaded but they were, in a word, genuine. There was a photo of a young girl under an umbrella, her face obscured by the fabric, the rain falling in visible slants across her bare arms and legs. There was a taxicab, its body slick with rain, the driver and passengers facing forward as if looking towards the horizon. Somewhere, there was the blur of a rickshaw taken through streaks of rain caught on a car window, the peddler caught midair between strokes. It was as if the scent of sweet rain emanated through her photos, teasing me to some reaction. As if she had stolen Kolkata monsoons from half a world away and placed them in her photographs for only me to recognize.
Then there was Poet's Walk in the winter, desolate and deeply mysterious, a reflection, I thought, of my own soul during dark winter hours. I looked from photo to photo, intrigued at each image, forgetting for the time being the impending darkness.
“These are beautiful,” I said, “Absolutely beautiful.”
“Thanks. You know how it is though. If you're a no name somewhere in Central Park, you're worth maybe twenty bucks. Put the same thing in a gallery somewhere and a few hundred is where you start. Not that I'm saying that I could exhibit or anything.”
“But you could. You
She squatted beside me.
“Would you like to buy one?” she said.
Our eyes met and I looked away. Her eyes were brown. Anjali's were almost translucent green. I thought of Anjali's biryani, fragrant with cardamom, cloves, ghee and fresh lamb. I imagined her fingers feeding me mounds of rice and moist meat, her fingertips stained thereafter with the scent of seductive spices. I knew she was waiting. I had to get home and I knew that also. So then why is it that I lingered, hesitated, stayed?
She got up and was about to walk away.
“I do want to buy one,” I almost screamed.
I didn't want one of the photos. I actually wanted all of them. It was as if she had taken my confusion with the world and articulated it through images, allowing happiness and hurt and sadness and weariness to all be felt at once through framed 5-by-7's. She took me to places I thought I had forgotten. Memories I thought I had lost came back to me as old friends do, softly and smiling.
I noticed flecks of gold in the brown of her irises. Her lips were full and innocent. Her skin was a slight olive. Anjali's lips were thinner but her complexion was much fairer.
“Which photo would you like me to buy?” I asked as I fingered the frames one after another, still thinking of uneaten biryani.
“Whichever one you want,” she said.
“Tell me what you think suits me.”
She looked down for the length of a glance before looking up again.
“Poet's Walk in the Winter,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“The color of loneliness in the sky is the same as the color of your eyes.”
I imagined kissing her, the sensation of her lips, and the movements of her body. It aroused me how she made loneliness a beautiful image, soft mounds of snow melting across a shadowed pathway. Almost made you want to fly away into a photograph never to be found again. Made you understand Tracy Chapman just a bit better.
I paid her with a twenty Anjali had handed me that morning so that I could put some money on my metro card. She turned the frame over and wrote something on the back. She placed it in a paper bag. Then she handed me her image of my soul: a cold, empty winter longing for an artist's graceful caress.
“Will I see you here again?” I asked.
She smiled. Her eyes reminded me of the taste of mellow, bittersweet chocolate.
“You'll see me somewhere in this great city. I promise.”
I got up and felt the stiffness in my knees. I put my headphones back on and caught the tail end of “The Promise.” I turned to leave. I ambled towards the stairs and turned before I ascended. The trees were losing the definite contours of their trunks and people were becoming silhouettes and shadows in early evening. The saxophonist was now playing “Lady in Red.” His sultry notes took me to thoughts of Indian brides, adorned in red and gold, waiting to be beholden. Anjali wanted to wear red if there was a wedding. As “The Promise” reverberated to an end, I wondered if I had promised Anjali a wedding in the past four years of our togetherness. I knew I hadn't outright, but had I led her to believe? What else had I promised her and yet never thought about? Biryani, for one.